I Thought I Would Die in a Bunk Bed in Hanoi
I land in Hanoi the second week of February. Not winter, not summer, and not comparable to any other middle season in the rest of the world. Arriving from the coldest months of Europe, I expect some kind of warmish welcoming, but end up surprised at how much of an optimist I can sometimes be.
In the taxi from the airport to the hostel, I realise I don’t have enough cash with me, and that I also forgot to check if my credit cards would work in Vietnamese ATMs. While the taxi driver yells all his frustration at me in his incomprehensible language, I feel guilty and stupid, but still somehow – and respectfully – find the situation funny.
He drops me at different ATMs, but none of them take my cards.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I repeat.
He drives me to a little shop with walls green as beans straight out of a can, where a guy hands me an Eftpos machine. The unexpected swipe of victory eventually melts the tension between me and the driver, and leads to a sincere hug.
At the hostel, after calling my bank and fixing my card problem, I impatiently open my first Vietnamese beer and smoke a cigarette at the front. The cold breeze is persistent; soft acid rain textures the windows, romantic, sure, as the perpetually grey sky.
That night, sitting in a comfortable chair at a café, I start coughing copiously. The waiter’s face is as surprised as mine when we both hear my, “No, thanks,” answering his kind proposal of another drink. That should have been an alarm bell. I go back to my bunk bed, pull the curtain after me and lay down. I feel tired and feeble, but do not know that it will be my crypt for the next three days.
I wake in the middle of the night shivering with a high fever. I reach for my backpack in the pitch dark of the room; my towel becomes an extra blanket. I miss the free breakfast included in the hostel price. Another bad sign, but I can’t move. I can’t read or watch a movie either, ’cause my eyes are burning. I just manage to take some flu meds and sleep again.
It’s dark outside when I next wake up. Bravely, I go out. I am starving and, in my multiple experiences in Vietnam, I’ve learned that there’s nothing a warm, spicy bowl of pho can’t cure. Sitting on this little red plastic chair, I order a rare beef one. I’ve always eaten on the streets in South East Asia and have never been sick once, despite what blogs and my mum have told me. The looks I receive from the other customers are horrifying; I must look like shit. Once I consume my meal following all the conventional rituals, I retire quickly. The lights are on, but I fall asleep anyway.
In the middle of the night, I open my eyes with an impelling urgency to vomit. I run for the toilet, trying to be as quiet as possible, but fail immediately after the second step. I crash on the ground; my legs are as mellow as if they are made of fresh noodles. This situation is repeated several times before the first lights of the morning hit side of the building where the huge window on our room stands. I sleep again, another free breakfast missed.
What if I’m seriously sick? I think, staring at the ceiling later that day. What if I die here alone and nobody notices it? I’m far, really far from family, friends, or even whoever I know on this planet. I feel alone and helpless. Should I ask for help? No, don’t exaggerate. I will be fine.
I hear people talking, making love, making love to themselves. Nobody suspects that I am going through a near-to-death experience behind those thick purple curtains. Big dorms are like tiny buildings with tiny apartments.
I listen, partially voluntarily, partially not, to a two-hour phone call between a Mexican guy and his girlfriend. She is back in Central America, and he is defending his right to fuck whoever he wants because “it wouldn’t mean anything”, while demanding that she remain totally loyal to him, of course.
A French couple argues over an ex-boyfriend’s dick size. “Stop it,” she says. “You are sick, someone may understand us.”
“C’mon,” he replies, “they are all Americans here. They don’t speak French.”
Well, “Pas tout le monde apparemment,” I mumble at the lowest tone I can produce.
A guy from Texas hears me, and I hear him back saying to his friend, “Oh, so there is someone in that bed.”
I ask for a piece of bread at the reception, hoping that I will not see it again later in the night. Just 16 hours later, I finally join my first free breakfast. The options are Continental, American or Vietnamese. The hot chicken broth goes down carefully and nicely. It’s my third day in Hanoi and this is just my third meal, I muse, reflecting that I’d planned something more like four-to-five meals a day.
I make eye contact with the only other guest who chose the latter breakfast option: a 200-year-old little Vietnamese woman. She is so skinny she looks made of paper. She smiles, and I wonder what she is doing in a hostel like this.
Back in my room, in bed, I stare at the ceiling: Maybe I’ll feel better today. Maybe I’ll go out and see the lake and water puppets and the war museum and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and even have a Bia Hoi, the cheapest and freshest beer in the whole world. But then I fall asleep again. I am weak as a leaf.
The reception guy comes in.
“Hey, I’ve notice you booked just until today.”
“Oh wow. Time went so fast. Can I stay more?” I ask.
“We are actually fully booked.”
I book the hostel next door with my phone and prepare myself for the travel. Eight floors of stairs in total; 37 meters covered outside in the cold rain. Exhausted, I check in.
I wait for three hours on the couch reading and waiting for a sign from the lady at the reception desk in front of me. Nothing. Then, still weak and shivering from my sickness, I stand up.
“Aaahhh, your room has been ready for two hours!”
Perfect, I think, and finally lay down in another coffin-looking bed.
I check the Vietjet website and book a flight to the centre of Vietnam for that same night, where the weather is more clement and the beaches not too crowded. I’ll come back to the beautiful cold of Hanoi four weeks later and fall in love with it, just like you fall in love with someone who almost killed you on a first date. But for now, I’ll pull the curtains and sleep for another 12 hours.